Interfaith Intercultural Wedding Ceremonies



Hello, and congratulations on your upcoming marriage! What a glorious, life-affirming choice that is, one that must fill you with hope and excitement. Now that the big decision has been made, your attention has naturally turned to planning your wedding, which includes the ceremony.

As an interfaith minister, I have been privileged to have officiated at hundreds of wedding ceremonies for couples coming from an amazing variety of backgrounds. Interacting with people of so many cultures, colors and creeds has enriched me—for this is work that makes the spirit soar and the heart sing! These couples have inspired me. What I often refer to as a sacred walking with these couples during the preparation and celebration of their weddings forms the soul of this book.

It is my hope that JOINING HANDS AND HEARTS will help you create the wedding ceremony of your dreams and perhaps beyond what you have imagined—one that will resonate within you throughout your married lives. This book offers an inclusive, embracing approach, one rooted in and permeated by that very same essence that brought you together—love. And if yours is an interfaith, intercultural or interracial union, then your love doesn’t know the boundaries of color, creed or nationality. I cannot think of anything more beautiful.

Our world is becoming smaller by the minute. Advances in technology and communications, changes in the way we work, the ability to travel anywhere—all have created what is truly a global village. People from all countries interact with one another at an ever-increasing pace. Inevitably, individuals of different faiths, backgrounds and cultures meet, get to know one another, fall in love, decide to marry. There is no doubt: intermarriage is on the rise. Here are some statistics:

  • In the United States alone, five million people are married each year.
  • Over forty percent of marriage-age Catholics marry outside the Church, a doubling since the 1960s. Marriages between Catholics and Protestants, once frowned upon, are now accepted by the vast majority of those faiths.
  • Three in ten Mormons are now in interfaith marriages, although they are encouraged by their church to marry within their faith.
  • One in three Episcopalians and one in four Lutherans have married outside their churches.
  • The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America reports that two-thirds of its sanctioned marriages are interfaith.
  • The number of Jewish-Christian couples doubled to one million during the 1990s.
  • Four in ten Muslims, whose religion allows men but not women to intermarry, have chosen non-Muslim spouses.
  • The intermarriage rate approaches sixty percent for Buddhists, the fastest-growing Eastern religion in the United states.

How do all these "mixed matches" get married? Increasingly, couples who wish their wedding day to be one of harmony, spirituality and celebration are discovering the interfaith ceremony. It is a bridge. The great strength of the interfaith ceremony is that it is inclusive. If done correctly, it is an enlightening and enriching experience. Each ceremony contains its particular brand of magic, and all involved come away feeling honored and celebrated. No one feels alienated or offended. One family is not more important than the other. The interfaith ceremony is like a sacred dance that goes back and forth, celebrating each tradition in joy, making room so that everyone feels richer and expanded.

I often tell couples that my job is to serve them and their families with the utmost caring and devotion. JOINING HANDS AND HEARTS is here to serve you, to suggest possibilities and solutions. There is no agenda, religious or otherwise. We all participate in the sacred. The solutions, in the broadest sense, are not about conciliation and giving in, but about learning, understanding, respecting, and always broadening the circle ever wider. That is what makes for a memorable interfaith wedding ceremony. And that is what makes for a successful interfaith/intercultural marriage, one in which the love will continue to grow ever stronger, deeper and greater.

JOINING HANDS AND HEARTS will serve as your guide to designing a wedding tailored to both of your needs and wishes; it will lead you through the steps of planning a ceremony that is uniquely yours. A ceremony involves not only your beliefs, but those of both your families. It has to do not only with religion, but also with cultural and personal elements of significance to you.

Part I includes the following chapters: An introduction to interfaith; a questionnaire to help you identify, express and focus your feelings, thoughts and needs; practical considerations to bear in mind as you begin thinking about your wedding ceremony; a discussion of family matters to help you deal with family issues as the planning process goes on; and the outline of a core interfaith ceremony, which you may use as a blueprint around which to structure your own wedding.

In Part II, you will find the Manual. It includes several sections: First, an overview of the religions of the world and of their marriage ceremonies, adapted for an interfaith service. We have taken traditional elements from various ceremonies and presented them in a universal context, so that each is appropriate for an interfaith assembly of peoples. You will find the symbolism and meaning of each ritual and element explained for the benefit of both sides of the family.

When I meet with an engaged couple to talk about their wedding, sometimes one or both are not very knowledgeable about their own religious or cultural traditions—or often they know very little about their partner’s. I would suggest to you, as I do to the couples I work with: Read about each others’ religions and cultures. Be willing to learn from each other. The wedding is one day—a wonderful, transforming, unforgettable day, but just a day within a lifetime of days. Every interfaith couple should enter a marriage with their eyes and hearts wide open, and know as much as they can about each other’s religion, culture and family heritage. Inevitably, there will be adjustments to come. But to marry in ignorance, or with the notion that any compromises can be worked out later, is troublesome.

This part of the Manual will help get you started. For each religion, I offer a brief explanation of the basic tenets of the beliefs and the spiritual essence that have provided comfort and sustenance to so many people over centuries. It is my hope to give you a glimmer of the light that illuminates each tradition. Unfamiliar doctrine often may sound strange or uncomfortable, and may separate and divide. But the teachings of the founders of the world’s great religions—the words of Moses, Jesus, Mohammad, Lao-Tzu, Buddha—are essentially universal. All religions and spiritual paths originate from and lead to the same place—love.

As an interfaith minister (who grew up in a traditional Catholic family), I find that the more I learn, including from all the couples I have worked with over the years, the bigger I become inside. Through my exposure to the various traditions, they have become somehow part of me. I have discovered that in some way: I am Christian, I am Jewish, I am Muslim, I am Hindu, I am Buddhist, I am Taoist, I am Sufi, I am Native American, I am African-American. I am one with the beauty and wisdom of all faiths and cultures. God is called by many names. Perhaps as you and your partner learn from each other, you too will find yourself growing in appreciation of each other’s theologies, cosmologies and belief systems. And from this exposure you too will become bigger, richer inside. You or your partner may have spiritual inclinations toward traditions other than the ones you were raised with, and this book will serve you in that regard as well.

The next section of the Manual lists wedding rituals and customs from around the world. Many couples wish to celebrate their cultural roots. In these pages, you will read about customs you might find appealing and appropriate for your wedding (the African-American jumping of the broom, for example, or the Spanish and Mexican exchange of coins)—what they mean and how they can be incorporated and explained in a ceremony.

Then we offer a menu of universal words. These pages provide a sourcebook of passages that correspond to the several stages of the ceremony— readings, prayers, vows, blessings. Their appeal is universal; they are words that speak to all hearts. And they can be incorporated into almost any wedding ceremony.

Finally: Many of the couples whose ceremonies I have conducted have graciously allowed me to tell their stories. They are tender, delightful and romantic stories—about how they met and fell in love, about the obstacles they overcame, about their spiritual paths, about the choices they made and the weddings that, together, we designed. Standing in the presence of their love, one cannot help but be sprinkled with their stardust. From their love stories (which are interspersed throughout the book) and sample ceremonies (which are presented in Part III) you may gather any number of suggestions or creative solutions for your own wedding. I hope their stories will not only describe how, when and where particular elements can be incorporated, but will also spark ideas on how to unite your family and guests into a oneness of spirit—and especially, how to achieve the balance that is the hallmark of an interfaith service. Perhaps you may even see a bit of yourselves in these brides and grooms.

As you read the ceremonies that we describe in JOINING HANDS AND HEARTS, it may be apparent to you that one has a more Jewish slant, another a more Christian slant, or whatever the interfaith combination may be. These are decisions the bride and groom have made. It is the couple themselves who choose the rituals, prayers and blessings for their wedding. There may be any number of reasons for their choices: Perhaps the bride feels more deeply committed to her religious heritage than the groom does to his, and he is happy to accommodate her wishes; perhaps his family and guests come from a more traditional environment, and the couple hopes to help them feel most comfortable. Sometimes the issue of who is paying for the wedding is a deciding factor. The final decisions are theirs—just as your decisions must be yours.

For me it is an honor and privilege to perform marriage ceremonies. The Christian marrying a Hindu, the Protestant marrying a Mormon, the Baptist marrying a Jew, a Jewish groom marrying a Japanese Shinto bride, the bride who loves her Greekness and admires her fiance’s Catholicism, an African American and a Moroccan Frenchman who relish each other’s cultures—to me, these individuals, even when they struggle with their plans and questions, are a cause for rejoicing. They are blessings. "Marriage," wrote Joseph Barth, "is our last, best chance to grow up." And an interfaith/intercultural marriage, to me, represents one of our universal best hopes of reaching toward a promised land, where people of all religions, creeds and colors live side by side, hand in hand, honoring and celebrating both their uniqueness and their commonality. No us versus them. Or me versus you. When I stand before an interfaith couple and look out at their families and guests, I sometimes feel, "This is where it starts. This is our hope for peace."

from Chapter One:


"The spiritual visions of man confirm and illumine each other…. Great poems in different languages have different values but they all are poetry, and the spiritual visions of man come all from One Light."

—Juan Mascaro, introduction to Bhagavad Gita

Interfaith is not a religion. It walks among the religions. Interfaith begins when we create a bridge between one set of beliefs and traditions and another. We start by listening to each other, and to the humanity in all of us. Interfaith emphasizes the universal principles and spiritual compassion taught by all schools of divinity and ethics. Each religion is an instrument for the divine, and together the world’s religions form a glorious symphony. Interfaith is the acceptance and celebration of humankind in all its magnificent faiths, colors, cultures and traditions. It is the acknowledgment that there is but one light that burns brightly through each faith and within each heart. In its essence, this light is love. Interfaith does not take sides.